Intel's P35 Express has reigned as the enthusiast chipset of choice for Core 2 processors since its introduction last May, and for good reason. The P35 delivers a fantastic combination of performance, features, and overclocking potential with a low enough price tag to allow for a wide range of affordable motherboards. But what if you desire a system smaller than your average mid tower or even Micro ATX enclosure?
Then you'll probably be eyeing something like Shuttle's XPC SP35P2 Pro. Built on a small form factor P2 chassis that Shuttle has been tweaking for years, the SP35P2 packs a P35 chipset, four DIMM slots, two hard drive bays, and support for double-wide graphics cards into an enclosure not much larger than a shoebox. There's even an integrated fingerprint reader, and in defiance of the system's proportions, ample options for overclocking.
On features and specifications alone, the SP35P2 is easily the most interesting small form factor system for PC enthusiastsnot that there are many to choose from these days. The question, then, is how the SP35P2 stacks up against its full-sized ATX counterparts. Read on to see what, if anything, Shuttle has compromised to bring the P35 Express to market in a small form factor system.
P2 with a twist
The SP35P2's defining characteristic is its form factor. Measuring 325mm long, 210mm wide, and 220mm tall (12.8" x 8.3" x 8.7" for the metric-impaired), Shuttle's P2 chassis is significantly smaller than the average mid-tower enclosure. However, as we'll see in a moment, the P2's dimensions aren't so diminutive that they severely limit the system's hardware compatibility and expansion capacity.
First, though, a look at the SP35P2 from the outside. Just marvel at its, um, blackness. To be fair, there are three shades on display: glossy black plastic that frames the front face, brushed metal on the front panel and drive bay doors, and a painted aluminum skin. The contrasting textures play off each other nicely, creating a classy and understated aesthetic.
However, as refined as the SP35P2 looks, there's really nothing new here. We've seen very similar designs from Shuttle over the last few years, and while there's something to be said for consistency, it would be nice to see the XPC barebones line get a breath of fresh artistic flair. Give me some racing stripes, a splash of color, polka dotsanything to break through the bleakness of years of all-black XPCs.
To Shuttle's credit, the bleak blackness is complete, unpolluted by beige expansion drives or a messy array of expansion ports. Stealthy doors hide access to the XPC's external 5.25" and 3.5" expansion bays and its front port cluster. The optical drive bay door is particularly slick, with an adjustable remote ejection button and spring-loaded panel that opens and closes automatically with tray-loading optical drives. Slot-loading drives need not apply, however.
Along the bottom edge of the system's front face we find a smattering of expansion ports that includes a couple of USB jacks, Firewire connectivity, microphone and headphone jacks, and even a buried reset button.
Way over to the left next to the reset button resides a fingerprint scanner. The reader is similar to what we saw used in A-Data's FP1 fingerprint flash drive. With software Shuttle includes on the SP35P2's driver CD, one can set up the fingerprint scanner to be used in lieu of a password for Windows login.
Around the back, the SP35P2 shows off a wide selection of forward-looking expansion ports that are, well, facing backwards. Notably missing are serial, parallel, and PS/2 ports. The omission of the latter will be the most controversial, but with even old-school clickety clack keyboards available with USB connectors, there's little reason to preserve PS/2.
Shuttle balances the lack of legacy connectivity with all sorts of new hotness, including dual eSATA ports connected to the system's ICH9R south bridge, six USB ports, Firewire, and an Ethernet jack powered by a Marvell 88E8056 Gigabit chip. We also find a wide range of analog and digital audio ports all connected to the system's 8-channel Realtek ALC888 HD audio codec chip.
Quality integrated audio is particularly important for small form factor systems whose limited expansion capacity often precludes the use of discrete sound cards. In this case, we would have preferred to see Shuttle opt for the ALC888's more voluptuous cousin, the ALC888DD, which can output multi-channel audio over a single digital cable through either DTS or Dolby Digital Live. Shuttle does deserve credit for equipping the SP35P2 with both coaxial and TOS-Link flavors of digital output, though.